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Sports, Exercise, and Diabetes

Ever hear of Olympic gold-medal swimmer Gary Hall? How about pro golfers Kelli Kuehne and Michelle McGann? Or NASCAR driver Charlie Kimball? Aside from being awesome athletes, these people have something in common — they all have diabetes.

Like anyone else, people with diabetes are healthier if they get plenty of exercise. They also have the same chances of excelling at sports. Whether you want to go for the gold or just go hiking in your hometown, your diabetes won't hold you back.

How Exercise Helps People With Diabetes

Exercise is an important part of managing diabetes and staying healthy in other ways. Here are some of the benefits of exercise:

  • It helps your body use insulin (pronounced: in-suh-lin), a hormone that helps your body get the energy from the foods you eat.
  • It burns calories and builds muscle, which helps you reach and stay at a healthy weight.
  • It strengthens your bones and muscles.
  • It reduces your risk of heart disease and some types of cancer.
  • It improves coordination, balance, strength, and endurance.
  • It can increase your energy level.
  • It helps you feel good about yourself and your abilities.
  • It relieves tension and stress, relaxes you, and boosts your mood, too.

All exercise is great — from walking the dog or riding a bike to playing team sports — just be sure to be active every day. Changing your exercise habits might be hard at first, but once you start feeling how exercise helps your body, it'll be easier to continue.

Exercise Tips

Your doctor will help you get ready to exercise or join a sport. These tips can help:

  • Test yourself. Your doctor will tell you when to test your blood sugar. You might need to do it before, during, and after exercise.
  • Take insulin if you need it. Your doctor also might change your insulin dosage for exercise or sports. If you inject insulin, try not to inject a part of your body used for your sport before practice (like injecting your leg before soccer). If you wear an insulin pump, make sure that it's not in the way when you play. If it is, talk to your parents or doctor about what to do.
  • Eat right. Your doctor will also help you figure out what to eat to keep going. You might need extra snacks before, during, or after exercise. Aside from that, you can just stick to your normal meal plan.
  • Bring snacks and water. Whether you're playing a football game at school or swimming in your backyard, you should have snacks and water nearby.
  • Pack it up. If you will be exercising away from home, have a parent help you pack testing supplies, medications, your medical alert bracelet, emergency contact information, and a copy of your diabetes management plan.
  • Tell your coaches. If you're playing organized sports, be sure that your coaches know about your diabetes. Tell them the things that you need to do to control diabetes before, during, or after a game.
  • Take control. You're in control of your own health. Feel free to stop playing a sport or exercising if you need to drink water, eat a snack for low blood sugar, go to the bathroom, or check your glucose levels. Also, stop if you feel any signs that something is wrong.

What to Watch For

When kids with diabetes exercise, a few things may happen in the body. They can get get low blood sugar, called hypoglycemia (say: hi-po-gly-see-me-uh). Or they can get high blood sugar, called hyperglycemia (say: hi-per-gly-see-me-uh).

You may have low blood sugar if you are:

  • sweating
  • lightheaded
  • shaky
  • weak
  • anxious
  • hungry
  • having a headache
  • having problems concentrating
  • confused

You may have high blood sugar if you:

  • feel very thirsty
  • have to pee a lot
  • feel very tired
  • have blurry vision

If you're starting a new exercise routine, like training for a sport, your doctor might have you change your insulin dosage to prevent these problems. Also, keep an eye on cuts, scrapes, or blisters and be sure to tell your parents or doctor right away if they're really red, swollen, or if they're oozing pus — they might be infected, which can make your diabetes harder to control.

Kids with type 1 diabetes shouldn't exercise if they have substances called ketones (say: kee-tones) in their blood. When this happens, exercise can make things worse, and you can get very sick. Your doctor will tell you how to figure out if you have ketones, treat this problem, and get back on track.

Your doctor will also write down what you should do if any problems happen. For example, you might need to take a break, drink water, or have a snack. If you notice any of these signs, stop exercising and follow your instructions.

You're All Set!

Your doctor says it's OK and you know how to take care of your diabetes. You're all set to get plenty of healthy exercise. Now get moving!

Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: July 2012